In Baghdad, churches protected by reinforced concrete walls; others simply in ruins, still reduced to a pile of rubble, as in Mosul; bursts of rockets that hit American interests; and, to top it all off, a particularly harsh second wave of the pandemic… The least we can say is that Pope Francis did not opt for simplicity when choosing Iraq as his destination of his latest trip, which begins this Friday.
Some will salute the “courage” of this pope who, at 84, will be the first for centuries – literally – to go to Mesopotamia, cradle of the Churches of the early days, where tradition places the birth of Abraham and the first evangelizers. . Others will see it as a welcome, long-delayed support for Eastern Christians, in the very place where their suffering is most acute. They were nearly a million and a half twenty years ago, they are hardly more than 200,000 today: the repercussions of the neoconservative madness unleashed by George Bush in 2003, then the murderous delirium of the militants of the organization. of the Islamic State have reached biblical proportions for Christians. The fervor they reserve for the Argentine prelate will, no doubt, be commensurate with the disaster.
But we can also see this visit by the Pope as a major political coup. Iraq is now a country so tortured that even American GIs dream of leaving. Beyond the meetings with the main leaders of the country, François will go especially to Nadjaf, in the lair of the one who is as popular as him with his own faithful, the great Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The meeting, which could be confirmed just a few weeks ago, was settled down to the millimeter, like music paper. The Pope will take off his shoes to enter the home of this revered dignitary who can, if he wishes, make rain and shine in his country.
Al-Sistani is certainly Shiite, but he is seen as a counterweight to his great Iranian rival, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Iraqi Ayatollah defends the separation of politics and religion and advocates, as few do in his country, a real unity of Iraq, beyond confessional divisions. No one knows what the two men will say to each other in the privacy of Al-Sistani’s modest home. But if Francis wishes to guarantee a future existence for Christians in the lands of their origins, he will have come to the right place. At the risk, it is true, of enraging even more all those who, Shiites or Sunnis fundamentalists, want to end once and for all with this presence of Christians.